A high court judge has ordered the home secretary to change a key part of a trafficking policy introduced just months ago.
In an urgent hearing on Wednesday, lawyers representing trafficking victims said they were at risk of human rights violations such as slavery, servitude and forced labour if the policy continued.
In January the government introduced new rules restricting protection and support for victims of modern slavery.
One of the changes is that potential trafficking victims who have a criminal conviction are no longer automatically assessed for the support trafficking victims can access. This support may include accommodation, counselling and financial assistance.
Human rights and anti-trafficking campaigners argue that this exclusion could force some victims back into the hands of their traffickers. They include people forced to cultivate cannabis and convicted in connection with this, people forced into sex work and county lines victims.
The policy is known as public order disqualification (POD). Three potential trafficking victims who had received PODs due to criminal convictions challenged the policy in a case heard in court on Wednesday. One of the three cases was stayed.
In the course of the case, the Home Office disclosed that of 253 decisions made about this group of trafficking victims since the new policy came into force, 252 had been rejected for support. A further 131 people in this group are still awaiting a decision.
Chris Buttler KC representing the trafficking victims, argued that the new policy breached human rights laws including the prohibition against slavery. He sought a court order, which was granted by the judge, Mr Justice Swift, which stipulates that all potential trafficking victims must be assessed before any order disqualifying them from support is made. Granting the order, Swift said it would provide practical safeguards against potential human rights breaches.
A further hearing into the legality of the policy is due to be heard at the end of October.
Maria Thomas of Duncan Lewis solicitors, who represented the claimants, said the order granted on Wednesday would increase protection for trafficking victims.
“This includes British youngsters exploited by county lines gangs and victims of forced prostitution,” she said. She called on the home secretary to review the policy.
Wednesday’s high court order, which was opposed by the home secretary’s legal team, follows a previous high court challenge to another part of the new trafficking policy, during which the home secretary performed a U-turn on the type of evidence people are expected to provide to prove they have been trafficked.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The government is thoroughly engaged and working tirelessly with international and domestic partners to tackle human trafficking.
“We are awaiting further detail of the court’s findings and will respond in due course.”